Saturday, July 11, 2009

Today's Million Dollar Idea

Every day, I ride the ferry from Marin to San Francisco. Frequently accompanying me is my friend and coworker, Charles. We often take inspiration in the Bay air and beautiful scenery and come up with what we call "The Million Dollar Idea of the Day." I've been coming up with these since I was a kid, and I vow to someday make good on one, but for now, I am content to share them with the world...and you, gentle reader. :-)

Today's was inspired by a recent concert I attended. I hadn't been to a live orchestral performance in some time, and I was surprised and shocked to see two cellists experiencing what I can only consider to be challenges of the trade. Both were sharing a single music stand and the sheet music on it; when the piece they were playing came to the end of the page, one stopped playing and reached out to turn the page. When he picked up his bow again, he was lost as to where in the piece he was. The other cellist stopped playing, and, with his bow, indicated where on the new page they were. Both cellists then resumed playing.

Now, stop there, and re-read that last description. This means that, at one point of the performance, neither cellist was playing. No Yo Yo Ma-inspired dulcet tones, no basso profundo...nada. All because of my old enemy, the printed page, and its antiquated, ill suited form for the function needed. And that got me thinking: couldn't there be a better way? My mind flashed, and, aided by that old Google assistance, I visualized:




Now, what do these images mean? Why can't there be sheet music that knows where you are in the piece, and listens to you, and continually automatically turns the page for you? We live in the 21st century: computers are all around us, and barely used to their full potential: surely there must be a way? And I think, with a little ingenuity, there is.

Follow my thinking. First, you need something that can "hear" the music played. Digital Ear Real-Time software allows you to plug in a microphone, and it can turn what it hears into MIDI files, readable and playable by a computer. Second, you need to convert MIDI files to sheet music; there are lots of options for that, including this software. You also need a way to display that music on a large, high contrast screen: Amazon's new Kindle DX is perfect for this, and is already being used to display sheet music. Add in a small CPU, with a dedicated purpose, and you have sheet music that "hears" where you are in the piece, and can display the music, all without page flipping and losing your place.

There are a couple of foibles here. First, even the DX does not automatically flip pages, but that's more of a UI limitation; there is no programmatic reason an e-ink display can't automatically turn the page, or you could use a monitor instead. Second, the "hearing" software undoubtably has some lag to it, but as a first version you could have the computer simply follow the timing of the music: sheet music is inherently mathematical, and has the definitions of timing built into it (those symbols indicate how long to hold a note, and the piece is defined at the outset with a certain timing). In any case, the results would be no drop off in any music of the piece, and no losing your place.

There are hundreds of orchestras in the country, not even counting all of the schools. There are thousands of live music performances a day, all using sheet music. The market for this is, frankly, enormous. Computers are getting cheaper every day, and the e-book market is very hot right now, with the ability to download new content as a new business model. Combine all of these factors with the right hardware and software, and you have today's million dollar idea: Autoscrolling E-Music.

To the enterpreneur who takes this idea and makes it a reality, I give it to you freely. I only ask you credit me with an advisory board position...and free tickets to the first performance. :-)

No comments: